Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book 3 of 5: a pleasant change of pace

As with book 1, I was introduced to book 3 at the Attleboro Public Library. I finished my degree at Smith College in December 1995, and moved back to my hometown of Attleboro, Massachusetts, to figure out which route to take next in my life. Probably in March or April of 1996, I was browsing the book stacks and found The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman. It was probably the second edition, published in 1978. (The first edition appeared in 1960.) I own the third edition, from 1988, and the fourth edition, retitled The New Lifetime Reading Plan, and co-authored by John S. Major.

This was the first "book about books" that I remember reading, and I fell in love with it. And, although I'd already earned a Bachelor's in English, one result of my non-traditional educational path was that I hadn't necessarily read all those books that "everyone" reads in school. Fadiman's "mini-essays" about writers and works in The Lifetime Reading Plan made some of those classics more approachable, and made them seem more interesting.

Here are some of Fadiman's comments about authors:

On E. M. Forster's inclusion "in our short, highly debatable list of twentieth-century novelists ... One reason is that he is considered among the finest of them by the most perceptive critics. Finest, not greatest. The latter adjective somehow seems inappropriate to Forster; he would have rejected it himself."

About Jane Austen: "a writer so charming that it seems clumsy to call her a classic."

The opening of Fadiman's remarks on Friedrich Nietzsche: "The rhapsodic singer of the strong, triumphant, joyful superman led a life of failure, loneliness, obscurity, and physical pain." A bit later, he writes, "At times he writes like a genius. At times he writes like a fool, as if he had never been in touch with ordinary realities. (His views on women, for example, are those of a man who simply didn't know any very well.)"

And, some of his comments about specific works:

On Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: "at bottom the origins of this strange book are untraceable. It was spewed up out of a volcanic, untrained, uncritical, but marvelous imagination. It had no true forebears. It has had no true successors."

Of Joyce's Ulysses: "It is one of the most original works of imagination in the language. It broke not one trail, but hundreds."

"Of all the autobiographies ever written, perhaps the most powerful and influential is the Confessions," he writes of Saint Augustine's life story.

Making the case for Crime and Punishment over The Brothers Karamazov, IF you plan to read only one Dostoevsky novel:

Crime and Punishment is a simpler, more unified [book], with a
strong detective-story plot of great interest. It can be read as
a straight thriller. It can be read as a vision. It can be read on
planes in between these two. From its murky, gripping, intolerably
vivid pages you emerge with the feeling that you have lived and
suffered a lifetime. Its action takes nine days.

In short, Fadiman speaks to the reader as a friend, and the reader can't help trusting his opinions, and wanting to get to know these books and authors better - sort of like, "Clifton says this book is cool, I gotta check it out for myself." Or at least that's how it's been for me, and that's half the reason I own so many books I haven't read...yet. ;-)

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